Friday, July 17, 2015

You Wouldn't Listen to a Madman

You wouldn’t listen to a madman
With a shrill outburst, powerful
And sudden, like a flurry of crow wings
And voice just as loud, burying
The silence of rummage, escaping
The grime of earth, and seized
In a solitary moment.

What do you know about truth?
Nay, let us speak of friendship
And the portly mother hen,
Poking mother earth, finding truth,
And lie, truth, and lie. How, my friend,
Would you know, when we sit
And laugh and cheer without end?

What if, in mindless merry’s midst, I say
You will ignore a call, forget a text,
And look away from me, one day?
Look at the madman’s finger, jabbing
At a shattered promise, like a mournful
Crow’s beak, splitting the pretentious air;
Listen, for something troubles him.

Picture credit:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Space | Masande Ntshanga | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

Masande Ntshanga’s Space is a story that, on face value, doesn’t have much in it. Its title and opening paragraph are suggestive of an extraterrestrial tale. However, it settles into a story about a group of juveniles (CK, Thando, Thobela, and the unnamed narrator) doing what juveniles do—stuff that their parents or guardians would generally disapprove of, such as drinking and making sorties to dubious places. As the story progresses, we see the distance, alienation and isolation of an ill father being trumped by his son’s unashamed and simple declaration to his friends, 'This is my father.'

This appears to be the main point—and a subtly powerful one too. CK isn’t put off by the desolation and bleak existence of his father caused by his illness, and endeavours to show him to his friends. The characterization of the sick man as an ‘alien’ serves to dramatize his isolation and to present it as an abnormal situation that unsettles his son enough to somehow rationalize it in more palatable terms. Even at that young age, it disturbs CK enough to seek strength in alcohol, which he offers to his friends before showing them the ‘alien,’ saying 'You need a little strength for this.'

The narration of the story from the point of view of another young boy comes out great. The reader is put in the mind of a juvenile and the language he uses—for instance, ‘The way it’s getting hot is that when you go without shoes, you can’t.’ In addition, the writer is able to present situations to the reader without really making them obvious, couching them in a young mind that simply observes without fully understanding. An example is the scene at Thando’s driveway, which leaves the reader unsure whether Thando resents the return of his ‘father, the Bishop,’ or has been told to dissociate himself from his friends who have ‘collected sin.’

Hints, dropped in innocuous looking one-liners, seem to tell the stories behind the story. Readers who like cryptic mysteries would enjoy Space more. One can suppose, for instance, that Space is really about fathers—absent fathers. While we see CK’s father (who is sick and isolated), and are passively referred to Thando’s father (who has just returned), Thobela’s and the narrator’s fathers aren’t named. It is perhaps telling that Thabo asks the narrator not to pay him for the ride, that he ‘should count it as a favour to my mother,’ and that ‘we share a clan name.’

Masande pushes some boundaries regarding the depiction of juvenile behaviour. We see a bit of drinking and some manipulation, such as deliberately trying to fail Afrikaans class to avoid being taken to ‘white school’, which can be expected of kids of that age. However, we also see the scene with the stolen panties, which would perhaps not generally pass off as typical.

Typos don’t count for much, but I noticed 'Mrs. Sindiwe' in one paragraph and 'Mrs. Siviwe' in another, presumably referring to the same teacher.

All in all, Space is a story that demands some thinking from the reader, one that is easy to dismiss on the first read. It is nevertheless subtle in its depth, and seems to be open ended in terms of interpretation.

Picture Credit: Caine Prize

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Sack | Namwali Serpell | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

Namwali Serpell’s The Sack is an enigmatic story, revealing itself from alternating points of view—that of a narrator, and of ‘the man’. It is set in Zambia, and is about an uneasy friendship or comradeship between two men, Jacob and Joseph (one is simply named ‘J’ and the other ‘the man’, so I couldn’t quite figure out who is who). They are presented as having been friends/comrades (in a political sense) for a long time, a relationship that has nonetheless been complicated by Naila, a woman who both men loved or fancied, as well as the fact that J. is working, resentfully, for ‘the man.’

Serpell starkly paints a range of emotions and feelings throughout the story—resentment, disillusionment, love, longing, suspicion, and fear. These are interwoven beautifully through shifting points of view and symbolisms, according the story an aspect of enigma that intrigues the reader. ‘The sack’ appears to symbolize death. The use of the first person point of view to portray the man’s longing for Naila infuses a great deal of power and feeling into the story, and inexorably sucks the reader into the man’s fears and suspicions. The result is a picture of physical and emotional anguish that startles in its intensity, for the man’s dreams in the end appear to merge with a hallucinatory reality of death, which, whether by killing or by suicide, is a matter of conjecture.

Transformation also emerges as a key theme. It is suggested that Jacob, Joseph and Naila considered themselves equals at some point in their history, presumably when they were involved in liberation politics. Naila has passed away but is shown to possess an enduring influence over both men. This fact, the colour of the man’s skin (it is suggested he is white), and ‘how far (J) has fallen, sweeping and cooking for me like I’m a musungu,’ all transform their relationship to an uneasy, even hostile one.  In addition, one is better off materially, while the other is poorer, perhaps bound by some debt to the man. One is gravely sick, while the other is shown to flaunt his vitality. Changes in their material, physical and emotional aspects acquire a transformative influence.

The role of the boy in the story is somewhat puzzling. Is he the man’s son with Naila? He muses, ‘I know this boy is not my son but I have to concentrate to keep it in mind.’ In the ending, the boy has notions of hunger and fear in his mind, but also love—perhaps fatherly love that he longs for? That’s some puzzle to mull about!

Well, this was a bit of a tricky read. I enjoyed it more after reading it the second time. I would have preferred a little less mystery—straightforward naming of the characters, for instance, wouldn’t take too much from the story, which nevertheless is superbly written. I especially liked the wonderful descriptive snippets, such as ‘His breathing rasped, shaving bits of silence off the air,’ and ‘His words cut through the smell of fish and illness, through the boy’s whimpering hum.’

Fair to say, it’s an engrossing read, one of my favourites in the shortlist. Namwali Serpell was also shortlisted in 2010, and I am inclined to say, on the strength of this offering, that she stands a pretty good chance of winning the Caine Prize this year.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Folded Leaf | Segun Afolabi | Caine Prize 2015 Shortlist

The sixteenth Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist was recently announced, and as usual, bloggers give their thoughts on the stories. I begin with The Folded Leaf by Segun Afolabi, who in fact won the Caine Prize in 2005.

The Folded Leaf is about members of a congregation who travel to the city to seek healing for various physical ailments and disabilities through prayer from a celebrity pastor. The story is told through the point of view of twelve-year-old Bunmi, who is blind, and whose keen sense of awareness moves much of the story forward.

From a technical point of view, this is one of the main accomplishments of The Folded Leaf. It takes quite some skill to weave a story this way, and Segun does it well. Through Bunmi, we see the congregants’ hopes and faith before they set on the journey to the city; we feel their panic, fears and anxieties when traffic police stop them and when they are in church trying to get to the pastor; and their disappointment thereafter. We even get an allusion to gay love.

Most significant, I believe, is the sense of uplifting one gets at the end of the story. Bunmi doesn’t feel disappointed. He only chastises himself for having been ‘drawn into all this’, and accepts that ‘this is my life, that it is good enough’. He is thankful for the people he has, and realizes that his situation is in fact not the worst—he recalls ‘the boy dragging himself along the road in the middle of traffic’, who, despite his bleak situation, still has a smile on his face. Segun shows us that sometimes, younger ones can possess maturity and realism beyond their age.

I quite liked the way Segun makes The Folded Leaf a uniquely Nigerian story through use of local phrases that also infuse some humour, such us ‘commot for road’, ‘cannot you see we have been waiting?’, ‘Make we dey go now!’, and na so?’, amongst others. The lighthearted tone of the story makes for easygoing reading, and one might be forgiven for overlooking the underlying sense of desperation that morphs into resignation.

Perhaps one might feel a sense of déjà vu reading about a church, a rich pastor and a miracle that doesn’t happen—recall Miracle by Tope Folarin that won the Caine Prize a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t diminish the merits of the story. I think Segun has done a pretty good job despite the difficulty of telling a story from the point of view of a young boy, which normally entails infusing a measure of simplicity and straightforwardness.

Picture Credit: Caine Prize

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Open City | Teju Cole

To read Teju Cole’s Open City is to experience an unnerving metamorphosis. I picked it up knowing that it comes highly rated in literary circles, and, as it is often the case, a cloud of expectation weighed upon me. Like many, I was captivated by the lyrical prose, easygoing and poetic, which often brought to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s style—contemplative and inward. I loved the reference to the bird migrations at the beginning, which immediately puts one in a whimsical mood (contrast this however with the half-gothic ending, of birds losing their bearing and slamming into the Statue of Liberty). I found the writing quite relaxing and engaging at the start, just the sort of style that eases one into a story without too much of a fuss.

The detail with which Teju describes feelings, observations, or physical objects and environments is astonishing. Many instances abound in the book, and some are particularly magical:

I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and to become slightly less happy.

Even the simple act of walking acquires a flourish that takes one’s breath away:

As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which, to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of the fog.

Teju hides these lovely snippets in layers of Julius’ (the narrator) meditations, philosophical ramblings and seemingly interminable descriptions of physical spaces, mostly of New York and Brussels. And therein lie the highs and lows of Open City: the initial high dissolves into a predictable sequence of diary-like observations and records of Julius’ encounters and conversations covering a controversial topic after another—migration, identity, assimilation, history, war, politics. As one covers more than half the book and flips the pages towards the end, the initial high morphs into a sense of puzzlement. I discovered that there wasn’t a plot at all, and, on the surface, it appeared as if Teju has just used Julius as a mouthpiece to enunciate his views on certain themes. This is not an uncommon technique at all in literary fiction, but it is a well-beaten path, and I felt I was missing something that had caught the eye of all those raving about the book. Furthermore, if one follows politics and current affairs fairly closely, most views in the book surely have been encountered before.

However, just as soon as a sense of disappointment (and perhaps self-doubt in your discerning abilities as a reader) creeps in, Teju throws in a twist, which is an odd thing to say about a story without a plot. The narrator, Julius, psychiatrist-in-training, half-Nigerian and half-German, and living in New York, is told of a transgression he allegedly committed back in Nigeria as a fourteen-year old. The accuser is Moji, a sister of a friend of his in Nigeria, and apparently Julius, as he narrates to us, has completely forgotten about this transgression, or chooses not remember it, or in his mind, perhaps it never occurred at all. Some have criticized this twist as unnecessary, but, in my view, it brings to the fore the question whether the narrator is reliable at all. It forces the reader to revisit Julius’ encounters and voila, everything is not so banal after all.

And so from the high to the low, another high comes up. We discover that Teju’s trick, in creating a very unlikeable but seemingly benign character in Julius, who philosophizes a lot and comes off as a junkie for highbrow stuff—paintings, classical music—has blindsided us into believing every word Julius says to us. However, beneath Julius’ sophistication, he is actually a man troubled by many things. He has a few friends, but is beset by solitude. He was born in Nigeria but, being light skinned, doesn’t really feel that he belongs there. In New York, he is just part of the ‘black brotherhood’, something he tries to eschew. He has broken up with his girlfriend. He is estranged from his mother. In fact, his is a narrative of failed interpersonal relationships. He goes to Brussels ostensibly for a chance to meet his German maternal grandmother, but doesn’t really look for her. Even the enjoyment of his preferred tastes, such as classical music concerts, is tempered by his apartness.

It becomes apparent that Julius, in his narration, is candid about some aspects of his life story, and less so about others. Memory, how we interpret it, and how we memorize certain events and suppress others, emerge as central elements that determine our self-assessment as individuals. Julius views himself as essentially a good person, but Moji’s accusation seems to torment him, and adds to the misery of his solitude. His narration henceforth becomes dark. In addition to his inordinate focus on classical musician Gustav Mahler’s death and Mahler’s ‘obsession with last things’, as well as the reference to birds dying off the Statue of Liberty, I sensed a fleeting allusion to suicide in the scene after the classical music concert as he looked down on the streets below and up at the stars:

My hands held metal, my eyes starlight, and it was as though I had come so close to something that it had fallen out of focus, or fallen so far away from it that it had faded away.

From a literary perspective, Open City is something of a masterpiece. Teju shows incredible skill in constructing a character so unlikeable that one is tempted to dislike the book itself. In the end, after some measure of exasperation at an unlikeable Julius, we nevertheless have to wonder, given the totality of his experience, what to feel for him. Sympathy? Disdain? Indifference? It is perhaps fitting that Julius is a psychiatrist, as his entire narration is probably a self-diagnosis. He is troubled by the fact that someone considers him a villain. This shows his innate desire to be a good person, even though in actual fact he may be different, or viewed differently. He is, after all, human.

From a subjective perspective however, Open City is a little less entertaining. There is quite a bit of subtle humour throughout the novel. Julius’ encounter with the taxi driver in New York who drops him way off his destination (whether deliberately or not is the matter of humorous conjecture) and the concern about bedbugs are some examples. To a large extent however, unless one lives in or is intimately familiar with New York and Brussels, and likes classical music and paintings, one is bound to experience some disaffection throughout the book.

In any case, one can tell, from the endless debates about Open City, and the fact that readers have had so much to say about it, that Teju Cole has written a pretty good book.

Picture Credit: Goodreads